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What is Israel doing in Africa?

If Israelis would get to know the continent to their south, a lasting relationship could then be in the works
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi on November 28, 2017. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi on November 28, 2017. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

In the midst of immense political and personal distress at home, Prime Minister Netanyahu found time for a whirlwind visit to Kenya last week, purportedly to attend the inauguration of President Kenyatta for a second term in a repeat election boycotted by the opposition. He never made it to the ceremony itself (for security reasons), but as the only non-African leader present, he was granted the honor of addressing the guests at the festive lunch — just as an alternative ceremony was violently dispersed by the police, killing three protestors. He took advantage of the occasion to hail Israel’s burgeoning ties with the continent and to meet with several heads of state. The main reports on his visit and its importance came from the Prime Minister’s Office, which supplied footage and texts that were duly dispersed by an uncritical media.

Israel’s relations with the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa are too serious to be left solely in the hands of Binyamin Netanyahu and his sycophantic entourage. It is high time that the general public — and especially decision-makers and opinion-shapers — begin to take a keener interest in what is Israel is doing in Africa and how its renewed presence on the continent is being conducted. Israel’s ties with one-quarter of the world depend on such informed involvement.

A good starting point is the understanding that contemporary Israel-African relations are built on a complicated, undulating, history that has known high peaks (mostly during the 1960s) and deep troughs (especially in the 1970s), as well as long periods of neglect and disinterest. Israel’s recent “rediscovery” of the continent (actually launched by Avigdor Lieberman when he served as foreign minister) is much too long in coming — having more to do with its international and regional marginalization than with any shift in the attitudes of the many African states that have been attempting to attract greater Israeli attention since the early 1990s.

Knowledge of past pitfalls is critical to averting their recurrence. Firm links between states are usually constructed on a mutuality of interests and values over time. The present Israeli leadership, however, seems bent on reviving old notions of barter agreements with African states, based on economic and security support in exchange for African votes in international forums. Such an approach is more manipulative than cooperative. It disregards the specific needs of the very diverse countries on the continent; it substitutes instrumentality for reciprocity, and tends to belittle African sensitivities and concerns.

Indeed, the Israeli expectation that improved relations with African states will lead to greater backing in the United Nations disregards the fact that, for years, the recently decolonized states of the continent have almost uniformly promoted Palestinian self-determination. There are no signs that they intend to alter their principled position as long as the occupation continues — although most countries are willing (and some even eager) to promote this objective alongside the fostering of closer ties with Israel. Instead of linking development assistance to a change in voting patterns and punishing those who do not comply (as in the cases of Angola and Senegal last year), it would be much wiser to expand and consolidate of connections for the long term.

In a similar vein, for years Israel has promoted its geostrategic interests in the area, especially in the Horn and East Africa. It continues to deliver intelligence and security training to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya (as well as Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and other countries elsewhere on the continent), even when some of these states use this assistance to suppress domestic opposition, to fuel civil wars and — by extension — to engender massive humanitarian crises. The very real common fight against extremist Islamic terrorism (underlined once again by Binyamin Netanyahu in Nairobi last week) should not easily extend to propping up repressive regimes.

This is why there is something so disingenuous about the Israeli decision to establish an embassy in Kigali (rather than in other, perhaps more pivotal and democratic, African capitals) at this time. In an effort to placate populist sentiments — mostly coming from impoverished quarters in south Tel Aviv — Netanyahu has gone out of his way to pressure Paul Kagame, the long-serving president of Rwanda, to accept an additional 10,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers currently in Israel for a price — even if they refuse to leave the country voluntarily. Despite substantial evidence of mistreatment of these refugees (only a handful of the over 3,000 relocated from Israel in the past two years are still in Rwanda), Israel will give Rwanda at least $5,000 for each African migrant it accepts (totaling a minimum subvention of $50,000,000 in cash), together with other payoffs in arms and expertise. What essential Israeli interest on the continent is actually served by treating African asylum-seekers as commodities to boost relations with one particular African state?

The same question applies to some of the economic links currently being forged in the sub-Sahara. Many of these involve the sale of arms to African countries (to the tune of over $275,000,000 in Israeli military exports recorded in 2016, a rise of over 60 percent compared to the previous year). There is a veil of silence around their precise nature and destination. But there is little disagreement that they fulfill Israeli economic and political purposes frequently at odds with the civilian objectives so critical to the achievement of the specially tailored development goals of African states.

Indeed, significant investments in agriculture, energy, technology, irrigation and education carried out by Israeli institutions (especially the Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation, MASHAV, certain private enterprises and a host of highly inspiring voluntary associations) struggle to maintain their integrity in the face of (mostly deeply-hidden) military deals. It is the work of these organizations over the past six decades that has sown the seeds for a different, mutually beneficial, Israeli-African relationship in the years ahead; it is their creative initiative that requires expansion and fortification.

Thus, despite Binyamin Netanyahu’s refrain that “we believe in the future of Africa, we love Africa,” his actions do not always sustain this tremendously important vision. To the contrary, the manner of his government’s operations on the continent tilts more towards the immediate and the utilitarian than the continuous and the essential (explaining the insistent demand for Israeli observer status in the African Union, regardless of widespread African discomfort). These foster rising expectations that cannot but yield, as in the past, disappointments to all sides down the road.

This does not have to be. In fact, many Africans and Israelis would have it otherwise. But for a truly constructive relationship to emerge, Israel’s revived focus on Africa must nurture an appreciation of things African at home (where rank ignorance, prejudice and paternalism continue to reign unhampered even in seemingly sophisticated quarters), and the development of a nuanced view of their complexity in interactions on the ground. The promotion of African studies within Israel, coupled with the devotion of more attention to African affairs in the media, can go a long way towards advancing this critical knowledge base.

In the interim, Israelis must invest more effort in knowing what is being done in their name on the continent. They (and their leaders) have to understand that Africa is not a country; it is a continent containing a variety of states, peoples, cultures, religions, topographies, economies, prospects and aspirations. Africans need to know that Israel remains a small country with moderate resources. The transferability of its know-how is limited, but many of the techniques it he designed may, with adjustments, be applicable to their rapidly growing societies.

Above all else, all those who really care about shaping lasting Israeli-African relationships should grasp that the test of their success lies in outlasting the tenure of particular leaders and the longevity of specific regimes. Strong and durable relations may be boosted by personal ties, but they rest on commonalities between states — and not individual leaders — carefully nurtured by a multiplicity of shared concerns over time.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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